Posts tagged ‘faith based reasoning’

So the Problem is Social Media?

I had an interesting discussion last night about what has driven our fact free world or more specifically alternate realities depending on how you pick your facts. The gist of my protagonist’s argument was that being awash in media, and especially social media is driving the spread of false narratives and fake news, and once it is out there it spreads so fast that you can’t put it back in the bottle with real facts and data. Now that is certainly true, but I think it is an effect, not a cause, multiplied by technology. I have all kinds of technology, I get news 24/7, yet I seemed to be able to navigate the junk just fine.

I think in some ways this is generational. I was raised in a time when science and accepted research were respected. There were, certainly, a lot fewer narratives to choose from, and I did not think my teachers, whether they taught science, history, or English were just given their opinion on things. Now everything can be questioned and good grammar apparently is in the eye of the beholder? Questioning things is good, but I think we have unleashed a monster in those that neither understand the psychology of the self, or true critical thinking.

Let’s start with the psychology of the self as I like to call it. That is our tendency to decide things from the gut, and pick and choose facts/stories based upon what we want to believe. When I was a young boy, I learned the scientific method. It was based upon removing those biases from the analysis through a systematic application of rules. As I became a young man, I learned what it meant to really know something, not just a feeling or a wish, but to know it. The second part of this and probably closely related is critical thinking. I hear something I want to believe, that supports some wacky idea I have, but is it true? What is the source? What are other interpretations of events.

Let’s take my insistence that President DFF colluded with the Russians, tried to suppress the investigation, and is an ignorant racist. Start with racist. Define what that means because if you are going to have an argument about whether he is, both of you better have the same definition. My definition is simple, he stereotypes various groups, and he favors white people (or discriminates in policy and actions against people of color). I believe based upon his own word and actions, it is quite clear he is a racist. But the argument you might have with someone who disagreed would be around do we have facts or data so support that definition. And we have tons of it.

Ignorant is easy to prove once you understand it means lack of knowledge. He is clueless as he has demonstrated with his myriad of false statements about any number of things, including immigrants, white racists, guns, etc. His interpretation of history boggles historical fact. Next up, has he tried to obstruct the investigation into the Russia incursion? Again the data is overwhelming and the argument that this is just what he was used to in his real estate world falls apart a year later and he is still at it. Did he collude? On that one we simply don’t know yet. Somebody did. One can make a reasonable assumption based upon his actions that he is covering up something, but right now that is just an opinion. See the difference? I cannot connect the dots on the last one, except the number of dots left to connect are getting fewer. Mueller will do that one and probably find that the hold on President DFF is his money laundering of Russian money that his whole family was involved in. Again I am simply connecting dots we have, but I don’t know it yet.

So in this world of massive information, how do you pick out fact and fantasy and how do you avoid labeling things you don’t want to believe fake news? In the end, I don’t think anything has changed really other than if you want to create an echo chamber of your beliefs it is certainly easy to do these days because you can pick a million sources of information and close out those that are not convenient. But man used to believe amazing nonsense about gods and magic and when it turned out not be an effective way to survive in the world, we got science, so too will this happen now. More on that in a minute.

Certainly we need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking in schools. That is an up hill battle because it challenges a lot of local religious beliefs (if you apply it to religion which schools scrupulously avoid, but spill over is unavoidable, you start questioning faith, Heresy!). Religious thinking in and of itself lends to the whole psychology of believing something you want to believe without critical examination. It is called faith. In the modern world we tried to separate religious thinking from secular rationalism (The Enlightenment), but as you can see in today’s Republicans, faith-based ideology (markets are always best, flow down works, tax cuts are always good, to solve gun violence we need more guns, and big government is always bad) has taken over rational analysis. Certainly we need to teach what it is to really know something (models, testing, and examining conflicting data) and that we are programmed to self-select what we want to believe. If we had that knowledge and tools, social media would be ineffective in swaying our opinion.

In the end what really changes people is when their ideas fail and they personally suffer for those beliefs. I would argue that conservatives have just about everything wrong, with a small element of truth buried in there somewhere (like self-discipline is good and we do need to hold people accountable, but only if it is a level playing field). The people in the rust belt who are all gung-ho right now on tariffs think they will get their jobs back. They won’t (See Trade, Tariffs, and North Korea). The tax cut won’t bring rising wages or a fair share in profits earned because of their increase in productivity. Building a wall and making America unfriendly to immigrants will stifle our economy. Cutting regulations will stimulate some business, but we may find that the world we then inhabit is uninhabitable (think about the Lesser Depression in 2008). Believing global warming is a hoax will leave us unprepared for the future. There is a ton of data out there to show these are all fool’s errands.

I think this is starting play out. While Democrats (myself included) salivate for Mueller to save us, what will really save us is to examine the world we live in, the changes that are happening, and come up with a plan based upon a rational analysis of the best way forward. So far, except for Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, Democrats are floundering. But there is hope all around the country as new young people challenge the status quo that Republicans represent, and Democrats fail to challenge. The old ways are failing, we all know it, and that was the impetus to the last election. It will also be the impetus to the next one and maybe this time we have learned our lesson about an ignorant, racist, nativist approach to our future. Maybe those basic values that established the Constitution and what made us exceptional (diversity and an equal chance to succeed) will rise again. Maybe.

Do We Know How to Think?

We are probably more educated as a population than we have ever been before, we certainly have more access to information than anyone in our history, yet I am sure with all of this, we make terrible decisions. I couldn’t decide whether to call this blog Denial or address the fact that few of us understand what facts really are. They are two sides of the same coin because we selectively ignore some facts (denial) and leap on others to make conclusions that don’t track reality.

The latest example is a small portion of our population that has decided not to vaccinate. Now on the face of this, it is rational, but it is not. I think the logic goes something like this: I read some stuff that may link immunizations to brain damage or something like that (autism), there really isn’t any threat of disease x, y, or z, so why should I take the risk with my child? Even if this person had read the articles debunking the link between autism and immunizations, well they used to say butter was bad for us, now they say it is good for us, right? So who knows?  I’ll just play it safe.

So we have a confluence of information and an attitude that we are smart enough to shift through it and decide for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that if we know what real science is* and know how to think critically, but, and that is the really big but here, most don’t. In fact what happens in most cases is our prejudices drive what we accept as fact instead of critically examining the information we are basing that conclusion on. Who doesn’t get the email from some well-meaning friend about the dangers of something which could kill us and to stay away from it. Once in a while it is based upon real peer-reviewed science, but most of the time it is pseudo science nonsense.  But it is passed around as fact.

In the case of vaccinations, understanding the real science of immunizations would leave you with only one valid choice, to vaccinate.  But most of us don’t know how to find that science and separate the pseudo science from real science.  Being bombarded by information increases our feeling that we can make choices.  Worse, when we should be listening to our government (even on climate science) we choose not to.  Let me give you a couple of examples which seem innocuous, but aren’t.  Right now the media is focused on the American Sniper trial.  The defendant is pleading not-guilty by reason of insanity.  Good luck with that in Texas and in Chris Kyle’s hometown, but that is not the issue.  For most of us, it really is not news in the sense that it informs us with anything that will help us make decision in the future.  It is, for most, pure entertainment.  And this morning a MSNBC host and their court reporter were discussing if he was insane.  How would they know?  It is opinion masquerading as fact.  There is the legal definition of insanity for that defense, and then there is the psychiatric definition of whether he was really in control of his actions.  We got neither, just layman babbling about his babbling when arrested.

The second is a discussion I heard this morning about whether movies like American Sniper accurately depicted veterans and the war in Iraq.  The guest said something very interesting that will be lost on most viewers.  When asked if American Sniper accurately depicted the war in Iraq, the guest responded with, I believe it was an accurate depiction of Kyle’s perception of the war.  Now he did not answer the question.  He basically said that the movie depicted how Kyle saw it (or needed to see it to perform his job), but not how the majority of veterans saw it.  But that won’t be what is heard.  We don’t think critically about what words mean, and subjectively hear what we want to hear.

I guess my point in this blog is fairly simple.  I am deeply troubled by the fact that the solutions to the issues that we face, whether global warming, immigration, our economy, economic inequality, health care, you name it, are fairly simple and straight forward.  Yet we can’t get there because for many of us, there is an alternate reality.  And no, I am not talking about honest disagreement where the details of these solutions might be debated, but the overall thrust is not debatable.  I am talking about denial.  The failure of a standard of logical thinking and a test for knowing something.  Whether we live in denial, surround ourselves with an echo chamber, or are blinded by our ideology, there should be a simple standard for evaluating solutions.  Yet in our information age, we have become the masters of muddled thinking that leads to false choice after false choice.  Might I remind you that flow down has never worked, yet it is the free ride policy of Republicans that will be buried under further tax cuts to solve all problems.  How can we be so dense?

Here is something to think about.  You would say I am a raging liberal (my definition of Progressive).  Therefore I must love tax increases.  But I would say, only where they work.  You would say I must love government regulation, but I would say, only where they are necessary for public well-being.  No, I don’t think government does everything best.  But I am a man of logic and reason.  If flow down worked, I would embrace it.  We know from data around the world that single payer health care is the best way to provide health insurance, yet half the nation denies that.  We know from data that the planet is warming, and the scientific model of climate warming, tested and proven, shows this is caused by CO2 added to the atmosphere.  We know that we are adding historical amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, and yet half the nation denies this causal relationship and prevents us from taking practical steps to mitigate the damage.  In other words, half our nation is not driven by logic or reason, just feelings and ideology.  If my beliefs prove to be wrong, I am ready and willing to try something else, even conservative ideas.  Many of their ideas have already been proven false and yet they hang on to them.  Yes Houston.  We have a problem.

*Probably one of the most confused ideas many people have is that any theory should have equal weight.  That was an argument made by the intelligent design folks.  Evolution was just a theory, as good as any other, like an intelligent creator, to explain us being here.  Of course that is nonsense.  Gravity is a theory.  But the theory and the models to describe its behaviour have never been found to be inaccurate.  The theory has simply become more complex as we understand it better.  Evolution does not have a single case that refutes it.  We can test it.  We can find examples where we see it in action.  Intelligent design has no factual basis.  There is no data that supports it other than magic.  But we can’t demonstrate or repeat the magic.  No Virginia, all theories are not equal.

Some Thoughts on Religion

I usually only do this when I am prodded and T.M. Luhrmann and her op-ed(s) on religion always get me going. Maybe I ought to do more self examination as to why this kind of stuff drives me crazy. Maybe one of the reasons I am an atheist is that I really have a problem with authority. If there was a god, I would hold him so accountable… Anyway, here is her closing remarks:

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

Now do you see why Lenin said religion is the opiate of the people? People in their suffering also reach for drugs. Neither is a solution if both offer false hope. Then there is that little issue of sidestepping the issue of belief. In her words:

One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.

I guess I am better off believing that global warming and flow down work and put to one side my intellectual puzzling over the data that says I am wrong and better take another course. I guess that is my biggest complaint about faith based belief. We now live in a time when ideology has become more important that reality and this type of religious faith based belief or wishful thinking if you prefer, is commonplace in our political and secular life. It has no place there, but if we tolerate it in one sphere of our lives, it bleeds into the other. Oh, and in case you are wondering, you do not need God to find the good in people or see the wonder and joy of life. It is all around you.